Why Does Stigma Exist? A Deep Dive into Assumptions about Disabilities and Where That Comes From

In the picture: Sara enjoying nature in Nicaragua.

In the picture: Sara enjoying nature in Nicaragua.

Written by ETI Content Writer Hillary Dolinsky

Stigma. A powerful word with the ability to undermine an entire identity. Typically associated with a negative attribute, stigma is capable of shutting doors and closing minds before a conversation can even begin. It seems to seep into everything – from casual interactions at coffee shops to federal immigration policy. But where does stigma come from? What causes stigma to grow? How do we fight stigma?

As humans we tend to compartmentalize everything in order to become more efficient and process new things. We label people, places, things, interactions, and experiences. The sooner we can assign something with a tag, the sooner our brain can run it through our internal process and store it away. We label based on our own context: is this similar to what I already know? How does this compare?

To us, stigma comes from the fact that we are judging each other based on the labels we create, and what we think those labels provide to society. For the label of “disabled”, some people associate that with being less than, or incapable of doing normal things. When more people feel that a disability is a “bad thing”, it can be harder for people with disabilities to feel encouraged to claim this identity. This fuels any negative stigma about disabilities because judgments are being made based on assumptions, not a real interaction with a person who has a disabilities. Stigma then causes shame, and stigma exists because people with disabilities are not out and proud, and people without disabilities are not open and asking questions.

For example, some people assume that because Sara is blind, she can’t dance, she isn’t interested in fashion, and she must not care about being out in nature. That, or they think Sara must want to “fix” her blindness with a transplant or miracle cure. They focus on the “dis” in disability instead of taking the time to get to know her. They see her blindness first, not her personality. Yet if they spoke with Sara for a moment and asked her about what she likes to do, these would be at the top of the list.

We can start to fight stigma by having real and honest conversations. There can be a lot of pressure placed on people with disabilities to become active advocates. Not everyone has to be running a nonprofit and marching in the streets, but once each of us can become an advocate for ourselves in our day-to-day lives, we can begin to change hearts and open minds. If you’re close with someone who does have an identity that is often stigmatized, become an advocate for them. Support them as they explore this identity and be a bridge of conversation. Be respectful and place their voice over yours, but make an effort to be inclusive. They may not want to be as vocal about their identity, but just knowing that you’re there and that you support them can empower them.

We can recognize that our differences are just as important as our similarities because they are new and evolving. If you have an identity, hidden or visible, try to share your experiences with others. Some people may never ask, and some people may respond with hatred or fear of the unknown. But every time you reflect your truest self, you’re inviting people to ignore stigma and learn more about you. Together we can create opportunities for openness and start to defeat stigma.